by Ethan de Seife
Ethan de Seife completed his dissertation, Cheerful Nihilism: The Films of Frank Tashlin, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005.
| The Hong Kong film industry, it is often said, did not come into its
own until it consciously severed some of its ties with the mainland Chinese
film industry: the rejection of Mandarin in favour of Cantonese, the addressing
of Hong Kong-specific topics and themes instead of "universal"
Chinese concerns, etc. For this reason, scholars such as Stephen Teo often
point to such films as Michael Hui's comedy The Private Eyes (1976)
as an important breaking point. It is interesting, then, that one of the
directors most responsible for the flowering of the Hong Kong cinema in
the 1970s was (though born on the mainland) Taiwanese.
Chang Cheh, like his colleague King Hu, was an outsider to the Hong Kong film industry, and yet his films are quintessentially iconically Hong Kong films. Chang was an unparalleled master of the martial arts film in all its forms. In addition, he was one of the most prolific directors of all time: at the peak of his considerable powers, Chang was making five (1971), six (1969), even eight (1972) films a year. Any filmmaker who can make a picture as powerful as The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971) should certainly be allowed to rest on his laurels for the rest of the year. But not Chang: that same calendar year also saw the releases of The Duel and Duel of Fists, two more classics, as well as King Eagle and The Anonymous Heroes. When Chang died in 2002, the filmmaking world lost not only one of its most talented unsung heroes, it lost its number-one role model for a certain style of low-cost, quickly made, top-flight entertainment. No wonder Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong's Hollywood of the East, saw fit to employ him for the better part of three decades.
Chang wrote his first script in 1947 (1). This film, The Woman with the False Face, was the first Mandarin-language film shot in Taiwan. The film he co-directed (with Cheung Ying) in 1949, Storm Cloud over Alishan, was the first Mandarin-language film produced by a Taiwanese company. Chang also wrote the film's theme song, Gao Shan Qing, which became a substantial hit (2). Chang would write or cowrite much of the music for his later films, as well.
After working in theatre for much of the 1940s and 1950s, Chang wrote another script for The Cruel Heart of My Man (1956), which featured Cathay star Li Mei. The film's success led directly to Li inviting Chang to come to Hong Kong to write a vehicle for her. This he did Wild Fire was released in 1957 but Chang failed to make significant inroads into the Hong Kong film industry. For some time, he made a living writing film reviews, a column for a Taiwanese newspaper, and romance and martial arts novels, all under pseudonyms (3).
That Chang sometimes went by other names (as did his films) makes the researcher's task difficult. Biographical information on Chang is inconsistent at best and incomplete at worst. Various sources differ even on his birthdate: 1922 or 1923? These historical lapses can be traced in part to studio public-relations efforts, and to the fact that, until fairly recently, Chang was not taken very seriously. He was seen as little more than a program director who churned out reliable product like a Sidney Lanfield or a Norman Taurog in Hollywood. We probably won't know much more about Chang (and others) until the Shaw Brothers' vaults are thoroughly scoured by some diligent researcher.
Whilst in Hong Kong, writing would sustain him for some time: between 1962 and 1967 Chang was the principal on-staff screenwriter for Shaw Studios, producing more than 20 screenplays. A few films as director soon followed The Butterfly Chalice (1963; co-directed with Yuan Qiufeng), Tiger Boy (1964; his first film with actor Jimmy Wang Yu) but his breakthrough did not come until 1967.
And there was a lot of blood. On a par with Kurosawa, though the arterial flow in Chang was more of a gush than a spray. But this is splitting hairs. In all seriousness, Chang's approach to bloodshed was, if not quite revolutionary, surely unlike any other director's before him, and it is a large part of his legacy. Even today, to an audience inured to ultraviolence on screens large and small, Chang's films still possess the power to shock with their cavalier attitudes toward body dismemberment, and their often-casual disdain for human life. Anyone can die at any time in a Chang Cheh film even the hero and there's an excellent chance that he (and it's almost always a he, more on that below) will perish in a manner most gory. It is simply a matter of course for one or more characters in a Chang film to lose body parts and to be tortured by goons who wield remarkably baroque instruments of pain.
The rest of Chang's career can be charted through the actors with whom he worked. One can identify several distinct phases of Chang's career, each based on his performers, many of whom he made into stars. The first chapter, noted above, is comprised of the numerous films he made with Wang Yu. Chang's next major collaboration began in 1970 with Vengeance, which starred the immensely gifted duo of Ti Lung and David Chiang. These two extremely handsome and versatile performers would become superstars through their frequent collaborations with Chang (4). Ti, known to modern audiences mostly for his parts in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow series, was the handsome, somewhat friendlier-looking of the two. Chiang is noted for his intensity and seriousness. These two fine performers occasionally augmented, as in the fantastic Blood Brothers (1973), by the muscular and acrobatic Chen Kwan-Tai served as perfect foils for one another. Sometimes they played allies and sometimes they played enemies. In either case, their films resound with the energy and chemistry that is the hallmark of the most successful screen teams. Nowhere is this chemistry on better display than in one of Chang's undeniable masterpieces, The New One-Armed Swordsman. Here, the revenge plot which forms the basis of nearly every Chang film receives particularly vivid treatment, with the crippled Chiang out to avenge the murder of Ti, who has been viciously ripped apart by chains.
Chang's disdain for lucid plotting is a sign not of ineptitude but of a director with better things to do. It is vital to remember that Chang was working within the confines of one of the most sophisticated entertainment machines the world has ever seen: the Hong Kong film industry of the 1970s. Shaw films were shown all over Asia, Australia and North America. In appealing to a global audience, one obvious option was to make compelling, universal stories (Chang's films do possess a kind of universality as, again, they are not unrelated to folktales.) But another way to go was to appeal to the mass market by displaying handsome men with incredible martial arts skills bloodying the hell out of their opponents. Add to this the lush colours and ornate settings that became another of Chang's trademarks, and it is unsurprising that the films were as successful as they were.
Many of Chang's best films were made all the better by the talents of the incomparable fight choreographer Lau Kar-Leung (also known as Liu Chia-Liang), who would soon go on to become an immensely skilled director in his own right. Lau was unmatched in recognising and taking advantage of the natural talents of the remarkable actors/acrobats in the Shaw stable. His fights in Chang's films are intricate, lengthy, and full of eye-popping physicality. It is a mark of Chang's talent that, in most cases, he would let the fight scenes unfold in long shots and long takes exactly the strategy adopted by the directors of the Astaire/Rogers musicals, where the important thing is to see how the actors' bodies move. The battle scenes in Chang's cinema, whether hand-to-hand combat or replete with clashing swords, axes, poles and flying guillotines, are kineticism in purest form. They are breathtaking.
The loving appreciation of the male form is, undeniably, a subtext in Chang's work, and one of the reasons that the fight scenes are so thrilling. Chang's camera appears to gaze lovingly at the invariably handsome, muscular men with great physical gifts that star in his films. Moreover, his stories often centre on male friendship and loyalty the code of male honour runs quite plainly through Chang's oeuvre as a major thematic. Though Chang did make several fine films with female action stars (notably 1968's Golden Swallow, starring Cheng Pei-pei), his heart seemed to lie in the films in which he was able to explore themes of masculinity. It was something of an open secret that Chang was homosexual, and this knowledge informs his work in an interesting manner (5).
Counting the Brave Archer films and Chinatown Kid, Chang made 14 films with the Venoms (seven in 1979 alone), among them some of his best and most baroque (the two terms, for Chang, are often synonymous.) The standout perhaps may be Crippled Avengers (1978). This film is the complete package, and represents a distillation of the Chang Cheh style.
First, the film is filled with the sort of violence that even today makes audiences squirm. The titular avengers are titularly crippled by the evil Tu Tien Toh, who systematically renders them blind, deaf, mute, legless, and, most horrifically, idiotic this last by fitting Chiang Sheng's head into a demonic-looking vice. The vividness of the violence is matched only by its relentlessness. And the red of the blood finds its counterpart in the supersaturated hues of the costumes and sets.
The fight scenes are nothing less than thrilling. Of particular note is the battle between Kuo Choi and Chiang Sheng on one side and Lu Feng, the most technically accomplished of the fighters, on the other. Chiang jumps through an ever-smaller series of iron rings, some no wider than 18 inches. He and Kuo grab each other's ankles and roll, as a giant wheel, to attack Lu Feng. And the fight goes on for ten minutes or more, with no trick left untried. Chang and Lau truly outdid themselves in this scene, which represents the high-water mark of mannerist kung fu.
With so many muscles around particularly those of the beefy, leonine Lo Meng it is hard not to gaze at the performers' bodies. The raw physicality of the Venoms exceeds that of all of Chang's other star performers. As his career progressed, he became more and more fascinated with the extremes to which the male body could be physically developed.
Finally, the plot of Crippled Avengers is, like so many other Chang films (and so many martial arts films), built on a platform of revenge, though it's not quite so simple in this case. In the film's prologue, Tu Tien Toh's son (Lu Feng) has his hands chopped off by invaders. So Tu takes it upon himself, once his son has grown to adulthood, to cripple the sons of the men who wounded his own son. Those sons, played by the rest of the Venoms, are our heroes, waging war against the cruel Tu. The Good and the Evil are not so clearly identified here, which is somewhat unusual. Not unusual, however, is the fact that the developments in the film's plot depend on the pendulum-like swing of revenge, with each side retaliating against the other for a past slight.
More interesting than this, though, is the presence of a structuring device, which Chang uses with great frequency throughout his career. This is the rigidly mathematical nature of his narratives, and it is a device that Chang used as early as his films with Wang Yu. By mathematical, I do not mean simply that the film is broken into numbered chapters it runs much deeper than that. If there is a structuralist (without being a Structuralist) martial-arts filmmaker, it is Chang Cheh, who uses numbers to guide both the overall narratives and the smaller details of his films.
In the narrative world of Chang, the amputation of a limb of one of the heroes requires that one of the villains be similarly mutilated. If two good guys are killed, then two bad guys must die to set the balance right. But it often gets more extravagant than this. Here, David Bordwell describes the weird variant of payback to be found in The New One-Armed Swordsman:
© Ethan de Seife, October 2003
Compiling an authoritative
filmography for a director as prolific as Chang Cheh is somewhat difficult,
especially since the record-keepers of the Hong Kong film industry are
not always the most reliable sources. There is a preponderance of alternate
titles assigned to his films by distributors and exhibitors around the
world. Like many other martial arts films, Chang's pictures were often
retitled and re-edited to cash in on particular fads, or simply to make
them look more attractive to action-movie fans. Rather than clutter this
filmography with every available alternate title for every film (see the
Internet Movie Database combined
filmography for a full list), I have included one or two of the most
familiar alternates. Similarly, the Chinese title transliterations have
not been included in this filmography.
Magic Baby (1975)
my knowledge, there are no book-length studies of Chang Cheh. The best
single resource, by far, on Chang Cheh is the first website listed in
the Web Resources.
Cheh: The Godfather of the Kung Fu Film
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